The fight against clothes line bans
- 8 October 2010
- From the section Magazine
For decades, the clothes line has had an image problem in the US but, ahead of a rally to highlight the benefits of natural drying, is it about to be reclaimed?
There is a new protest movement sweeping the US and at its heart are two sticks and a piece of string.
Upon the humble clothes line, a battle line has been drawn that embodies a uniquely American clash of ideas about class, liberty and the environment.
Rules imposed by community associations and landlords forbid tens of millions of home owners to dry their washing outside because, they say, it's unsightly and even lowers property prices.
But a number of clothes line rebels have risked legal action by disobeying these rules, saying it is the duty of Americans to reduce their carbon footprint and leave their energy-hungry tumble dryers idle.
This Sunday their supporters will make their feelings known by holding a rally in Concord, New Hampshire to promote line drying.
These unlikely dissenters come in all ages and from all backgrounds. After moving to Witney Ridge in Pennsylvania nearly three years ago, Deborah Brensinger, a 55-year-old nurse, immediately began hanging her clothes in her back yard.
"Our government is trying to encourage working with the environment and doing things to cut down electricity, yet here's something totally free.
"I get to see my neighbours, it's clean and it smells good. It's a contemplative practice. I don't rush it, I enjoy it. It relieves stress. You can do it leisurely at your own pace, in a world that's so fast-paced."
She says she checked her neighbours had no objections, and the line can't be seen from the street. But after the threat of legal action from her association, the mother-of-three now dries her five loads of washing a week on drying racks around her home, much to her annoyance.
"Everyone thinks people do whatever they want in their back yards. If I went out there in a bikini, it wouldn't matter but hanging my clothes out does. It doesn't make sense."
Mrs Brensinger is one of 60 million Americans living in about 300,000 communities governed by home-owning associations, where living in a flat, mobile home or even detached house, means accepting regulations on the appearance of homes and gardens.
The majority of these associations ban or restrict the use of clothes lines but, with a mindful eye on energy consumption, six states have fought back.
Florida, Utah, Maine, Vermont, Colorado and Hawaii have passed laws restricting the rights of housing authorities to stop residents from using clotheslines, and several other states including Pennsylvania are considering similar bills.
The pro-clothesline movement's champion is Alexander Lee, the 36-year-old founder of Project Laundry List, an organisation based in Vermont that campaigns for the so-called right to dry. He says its supporters are drawn from all social groups and backgrounds, uniting "libertarians and environmentalists, Christian mothers and radical homeowners".
When a college student in 1995, one statement uttered by a visiting anti-nuclear lecturer, Helen Caldicott, inspired him: "If we all did things like hang out our clothes, we could shut down the nuclear industry."
This energy-saving message forms the central plank of his campaign. Official figures say that tumble dryers guzzle 6% of household electricity, second only to fridges, but Lee estimates the actual figure to be three times higher. He says that if one in three Americans started line drying for five months of the year, 2.2m tonnes of CO2 would have been prevented from entering the atmosphere by 2020.
"The movement is increasing because we have these three problems that are converging - the energy crisis, the climate crisis and the personal finance crisis. We believe that it's a patriotic duty to conserve energy. There should be a victory clothes line at the White House."
His campaign outlines other reasons to support line drying - good exercise, nice-smelling clothes, saving $25 (£16) a month in electricity bills, avoiding fire hazards and even mood-improving. And then there's also his aesthetic admiration for the clothes line, "its Gestalt, its organic beauty, its simple functionality, the colourful panorama dancing on the line".
British film maker Stephen Lake has travelled around the US, speaking to people affected by these regulations. The 24-year-old, who writes and directs a film on the subject, called Drying For Freedom, out early next year, says: "If a buyer goes down a neighbourhood and they see clothes hanging on a line, they would question the lifestyle that they would be buying into, because it might suggest that person can't afford a dryer.
"These communities are based around setting a neutral aesthetic, so that every house in the street does not suggest anything about the person inside. The English middle class would probably not understand that."
A few associations in the UK also restrict line drying, and many British people would endorse the view that clothes flapping in the wind can look unsightly. But it doesn't have the same stigma in the UK, where only 45% of households own a tumble dryer, compared with 79% in the US.
For many Americans, clothes lines are an unwanted reminder of a more frugal age, says Dave Rapaport, senior director of corporate consciousness at Seventh Generation, a firm that sells eco-friendly household products.
"Hanging clothes was the norm prior to the advent of the suburban ideal of modern living in the 1950s. Partly driven by the need to get women back out in the workforce after World War II, partly the need to sell electricity and the appliances being invented to use it, and partly by a idealised notion of progress, clotheslines became a symbol of the life people were leaving behind."
He can sense that belief now being slowly eroded, not just because of energy concerns, but by a desire for simplicity, the aesthetic appeal of line drying and a nostalgic return to traditional family chores.
And in the same way that many Americans have embraced the reusable shopping bag, he believes they could learn to love line drying again.
But there are many who say they shouldn't.
Frank Rathbun is spokesman for the Community Associations Institute, which represents tens of thousands of associations nationwide. Most of them do restrict the use of clothes lines, he says, but for good reason.
"More often than not, the rules governing associations were put in place by developers and builders when the communities were being built.
"In most cases, the decision is based largely on community aesthetics. Developers and builders are trying to sell homes, and I think most would tell you that clotheslines could detract from the overall appearance and kerb appeal of the community, and therefore sales.
"Regardless of the issue, appearance and kerb appeal have a direct impact on property values and the sale of properties. I think it's safe to say that most associations have kept these rules in place for those very reasons."
Many people are attracted by the these communities because of the rules governing how they look, he says, and in the same way that many residents don't want to open their curtains - front or back - to see rubbish or an abandoned car, they might not want to see a bunch of laundry hanging on a clothesline either. The same rules prohibit statues, fountains and motor boats.
A national survey in 2007 indicated overwhelming opposition among residents to state laws preempting association rules on clotheslines, he says, suggesting that the way some state lawmakers have overturned these restrictions on line drying highlights a more fundamental issue about the collective right of homeowners in private communities to establish the rules for their own neighbourhoods.
"The bottom line is that as a private entity, each association is in the best position to make these determinations. Remember, association boards are elected by their neighbours to serve the best interests of the community as a whole.
"It's also important to remember that homeowners in associations have a contractual obligation to abide by rules that have been put in place to preserve the character of the community, protect property values and meet the established expectations of residents in that community.
"If a large percentage of owners really want to change a particular rule, they can probably make that happen."